[IMGCAP(1)]Have you ever wondered why your accounting firm lost out on a recent engagement? Do you get frustrated when clients show little interest in utilizing the firm’s additional services that are offered?

A lot of accountants may assume that they lost a potential client because another firm presented a lower estimate. Or it may seem as though a client is too stubborn to consider thoughtfully the benefits of receiving strategic advice or financial planning assistance.

But the process of purchasing a service is often more complicated. A recent study by the sales consulting firm RAIN Group has some valuable insights for accountants wondering what leads a customer to buy from one service provider and not another.

The consulting firm examined more than 700 business-to-business purchases in professional services/consulting, financial services and other industries that involve complex sales in order to identify factors that most likely influenced buyer satisfaction with the purchasing process, buyer loyalty and willingness to provide a referral.

“Winners sell radically different than the second-place finishers,” the firm wrote in its report.
Second-place finishers either didn’t have the skills to implement, or they didn’t value, 10 factors that RAIN Group identified as critical to the sale. Here are the top three things that most often separated those who won the sale and second-place finishers:

1. Bring new ideas/perspective: The winning seller educated the buyer, providing new ideas or perspective. “When buyers perceive sellers as providing new ideas, sellers have a huge advantage,” the report said. “The right new ideas can shape buyer belief systems and approaches to action. This gives the seller tremendous influence.”

One way many accountants have found they can offer their prospects and clients new perspective is to provide them with a snapshot of their financial performance and show them how they compare to the industry. Showing a business owner in pictures how the company compares to peers can be eye-opening.

“It seems buyers want to be surprised and inspired,” the RAIN Group report found.

2. Collaborate: Winning sellers collaborated with the purchaser, the survey found. “The essence of collaboration is working together to achieve a common goal,” the consulting group said. “Once the buyer sees the seller as an important member of the team, and sees moving the sale forward as a common goal, the likelihood of buying in general, and buying from that seller, increases dramatically.” In other words, it’s difficult for a buyer to distinguish between the seller proposing the common goal, and the goal itself.

When accountants help clients better understand their financial health, the two parties can collaborate on identifying areas to improve and strategies to tackle the job. By helping clients and prospects “buy in” to a few areas for progress, accountants should be in a better position to be selected to help achieve those goals.

3. Persuade the buyer that together you would achieve results: Those who won sales more often were able to convince buyers that the time, money and effort wouldn’t be wasted. This is important in an environment where buyers are regularly disappointed. “Buyers simply don’t believe they get either what they expected or were promised by sellers,” the report said. “They’ve been burned in the past and are therefore skeptical of sellers and their claims.” Sellers that won the sale “convinced, and they convinced with gusto,” RAIN Group said.

Prospects or compliance clients considering advisory services from your firm might agree that they could take steps to improve their financial health, but being able to convince them that you will deliver those results can help your accounting practice win the engagement. You can perform projections and illustrate specific what-if scenarios to quickly show the impact that certain changes will have on a business’ cash flow or valuation. That can open the door to discussions about the steps needed to achieve the impact.

The RAIN Group noted that while these three factors and seven others it also outlined were advantages to winners, they weren’t necessarily commonly displayed—even among winners. For example, less than 22 percent of buyers strongly agreed that the winning seller educated them with new ideas and perspectives. Less than 8 percent of buyers, however, said the second-place finisher did that.

In other words, don’t beat yourself up if your firm hasn’t been providing new perspectives, displaying collaboration or persuading prospects and clients that better results are ahead. There’s room for almost all sellers to improve in these areas. And as the RAIN Group consultants said, “Those that do will reap the rewards.”

Mary Ellen Biery is a research specialist for Sageworks, a financial information company that provides financial analysis and industry benchmarking solutions to accounting firms, including its ProfitCents system.

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